1997, US, Directed by Gus Van Sant
Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Buena Vista; Video: Letterbox 1.85:1, Audio: DD 5.0
Will Hunting is a 20 year old genius with a few problems. Having grown up through a troubled childhood, losing his parents and being maltreated by subsequent guardians, he’s now on a path to persistent criminality via delinquent behaviour. Working at the lower intellectual end of the vocational spectrum (janitorial jobs, etc) he demonstrates an apparent lack of interest in taking advantage of his mental faculties, but by evening is drawn to reading incessantly and filling his brain with seemingly limitless knowledge. He is also mathematically gifted, this bringing him to anonymously solve a competitive equation put forward by the professor of maths, Gerald Lambeau, at the institution where Will cleans floors. Once his identity is discovered by the award-winning academic, Lambeau rescues Will from serving time in prison by having the lad agree to see him once a week for maths tuition, in addition to seeing a therapist weekly. Will is not overly eager to bare his soul to some old psychologist so repeatedly wastes their time and insults them as a means of forcing them to quit consultations with him. Until Lambeau drafts in an old college friend that is - Sean Maguire, an intuitive, sensitive expert in the field of therapy who has taken a different academic route to his more distinguished buddy. Lambeau doesn’t entirely approve of Maguire’s approach but it gradually works its way through Will’s defences until the two become friends, and glimmering signs of the young rebel improving his wayward existence become apparent.
Utilising quite a few ‘name’ actors - Matt Damon as Will, Robin Williams as Maguire, Ben Affleck as Will’s best friend, and Minnie Driver as the rogue’s love interest - this is a high quality offering of thought-provoking material. To an extent there is a certain degree of egotism on display (main actors Damon and Affleck wrote the story and script, with consultations courtesy of William Goldman) but it’s executed with a great deal of skill and awareness. Several scenes are difficult to watch, generally those where we and various characters come close to Will’s damaged past and essentially fragile state of mind, whereas others are a touch corny (for example, when Driver’s got her silly head on, or Affleck‘s portrayal of a minion), plus there’s a noticeable excess of verbal profanity on display (hey, I’m getting old, okay?!), however we are presented with a good portion of uplifting and inspirational scenes such as when Will and Maguire are progressing their friendship, Maguire is philosophically evaluating the nature of relationships (often with a touch of humour), or Will’s complex life is being explored with an air of optimism, etc. The dialogue exchanges between Damon and Williams, playing two deep men who are intelligent in different ways, are involving whilst stimulating plenty of thought. On a more technical level, the use of music - whether Danny Elfman’s score or various track clips such as Rafferty’s Baker Street - is mostly careful and considered in its selection and implementation. I found Escoffier’s cinematographic style to be consistently attractive on the eye, especially as many of the locations could be described as ‘a dump’; a personal favourite shot of mine occurs as Williams is talking by the riverside, his head surrounded by a contrasting and painterly array of exquisite greens. Gus Van Sant’s direction is calm and thoughtful as he allows viewers to ponder upon Will’s journey through self discovery and the realisation of his potential - not, perhaps, potential of the mind, but potential to connect successfully with others.
This ancient Disney DVD reflects the aforementioned photography very well in terms of colour reproduction, but lacks fine detail (a symptom of the fact that it’s not been transferred anamorphically) - nevertheless it’s fairly pleasing to look at. Audio is quite nicely rendered, particularly during musical moments. A more recent Canadian Blu-ray Disc from Alliance Atlantis obviously improves the A/V qualities quite significantly. As it’s the festive season I’ve reluctantly avoided the tradition amongst lovers of the macabre of reviewing Black Christmas and taken a look back at a film that taps at the heart, occasionally makes one smile, and offers insight into a fictional life that we can strangely identify with, despite probably sharing few of the protagonist’s characteristics.